Horse racing deaths decreasing in California

A cluster of deaths at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, in 2019 sparked changes across the horse racing industry.

Since then, the California Horse Racing Board reported a 50% decline in equine fatalities in California horse racing, dropping from 144 to 72 over the past two years. Trending downward since 2005, the number of equine fatalities declined by 40% over the last fiscal year alone, according to an Aug. 2 CHRB press release.

Dr. Alina Vale, an official veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, discussed horse racing safety during “Can Horse Racing in California Survive? Lessons learned from the CHRB’s Equine Postmortem Examination Review Program” on July 30 at AVMA Virtual Convention 2021.

“There are multiple equine welfare concerns across various equestrian disciplines,” Dr. Vale said. “Racehorse fatalities attract significant public attention.”

Dr. Vale is one of seven state- or track-hired veterinarians at Del Mar Racetrack in Del Mar, California, who observe and test horses from the time they leave their stalls through any drug testing after races are completed. She suggests that equine postmortem review programs can help the industry acknowledge and learn from fatal events.

“Our first goal is to reduce the fatality rate and then go beyond that and show that we do care about these horses and we are doing things to improve their welfare,” Dr. Vale said.

The CHRB Postmortem Examination Review Program through the California Animal Health and Safety Laboratory at the University of California-Davis has conducted about 60 postmortem reviews in the last 10 months, she said. Some of the initial findings suggest preexisting lesions, often subclinical, were present. Get more information about the Santa Anita Fatalities Report.

In addition, Dr. Susan Stover, director of the J.D. Wheat Veterinary Orthopedic Research Laboratory at UC-Davis, has conducted numerous studies that have provided insight into how various surface types at tracks and arenas impact equine athletes, according to an Aug. 9 press release from UC-Davis.

“Recent research from her laboratory discovered, characterized and described changes in proximal sesamoid bones that precede fracture and put racehorses at risk for catastrophic fracture, providing guidance to veterinarians for injury prevention and treatment,” the press release states. “With the concurrent introduction of standing equine positron emission tomography scanning, the changes discovered have allowed affected horses to be identified and rehabilitated for return to training and competition.”

Finally, according to the CHRB press release, Dr. Greg Ferraro, chair of the CHRB and former director of the UC-Davis Center for Equine Health, and the other commissioners have taken more than 40 regulatory actions over the past 19 months intended to better protect horses, including the following:

  • Requiring trainers to participate in a full postmortem examination review to make them aware of the nature of the injuries and to discuss ways to prevent such injuries in the future.
  • Allowing official veterinarians to require diagnostic imaging prior to removing horses from the restrictive Veterinarian’s List and permitting them to train or compete.
  • Prohibiting or severely restricting the use of bisphosphonates, thyroxine, extracorporeal shock wave therapy, and intra-articular injections prior to workouts and racing.
  • Taking substantial steps to make veterinary treatments transparent to authorities and, in certain cases, new owners.

In addition, the CHRB recently created the position of chief official veterinarian and named Dr. Timothy Grande, longtime official veterinarian on Southern California’s Thoroughbred circuit, to oversee veterinarians, veterinary procedures, and practices throughout the state.